MARGUERITE DE ROBERVAL
A ROMANCE OF THE DAYS OF JACQUES CARTIER
T. G. MARQUIS
TORONTO THE COPP CLARK COMPANY LIMITED 1899
MARGUERITE DE ROBERVAL
"These narrow, cramped streets torture me! I must get out of this place or I shall go mad. The country, with its rolling fields and great stretches of calm sky helps a little, but nothing except the ocean will satisfy my spirit. Five years have gone now, and I am still penned up in this miserable hole, with no power to go abroad, save for a cruise up the Channel, or a run south along the coast. If matters do not change, I think I shall quietly weigh anchor on La Hermine and slip across the Atlantic without leave of King or blessing of priest. I tell you, Claude, it would be rare sport to go that way, without a good-bye word to friend or lover. Gold is there in plenty, and diamonds are there, and a road to the Indies; and if we should bring back riches and new discoveries the King would forgive our boldness."
The speaker was a middle-aged man, with jet-black hair and beard, and piercing black eyes. He was as straight as a mid-forest pine, and tanned and wrinkled with years of exposure to sun and wind, but was a handsome, commanding fellow withal. His name was Jacques Cartier. He was the most famous seaman in France, and had already made two trips across the stormy Atlantic in boats in which nineteenth-century sailors would fear to cross the Channel.
His companion was Claude de Pontbriand, a young man of gentle birth, who had been with him on his second voyage. He was as dark as Cartier, with a lion-like neck and shoulders, a resolute mouth and chin, and a kindly eye, whose expression had a touch of melancholy. Among his companions he was known as their Bayard; and the purity of his life, the generosity of his disposition, and his dauntless courage made the title a fitting one.
The two men were walking along one of the winding thoroughfares of the French seaport of St Malo, on a glorious moonlight evening in the autumn of 1539. The hour, though still early, was an unusual one in those days for anybody to be abroad simply for pleasure; and the little town was quiet and deserted save for an occasional pedestrian whom business, of one kind or another, had compelled to leave his home.
There was a short silence after Cartier's remarks, before De Pontbriand replied:
"I thought you had had enough of the New World."
"Enough!" exclaimed Cartier. "That New World is mine. I first took possession of it. My cross still stands guarding my interests at Gaspe, and my memory is still dear to the red men from Stadacona to Hochelaga."
"I am not so certain of the friendship of the Indians," interrupted his companion. "If we had not carried off old Donnacona and his fellow-chiefs it might have been so, but now that they are dead you will have some difficulty in inventing a story that will regain you the confidence of their tribesmen. Ah! Cartier, I warned you then; and now I only regret that I did not oppose your action with my very sword. Poor devils! It was pitiful to see them droop and droop like caged birds, and finally die one by one. Poor old Donnacona! I expect we shall find his spirit back on the heights of Stadacona if we ever cross the ocean again."
"That was a mistake," replied Cartier, "but one never knows just what will be the results of an action. I did it for the best. I thought the Indians would enjoy a visit to Europe as much as did the two lads I brought over on my first voyage. They were too old, however, and seem to have been rooted to the soil. I am afraid we shall have to invent a way of explaining their absence should we return to Hochelaga. Would it not be well to marry them to noble ladies, and give them dukedoms in France to govern?"
"A good idea, with the one drawback that it is false; and there are enough false men already in France without an honest seaman swelling their numbers. But my impression of the savages is, that you will have a hard time to make them believe your story. They are a deep people, and, as we found them, a generous people; and once deceived, you will find that they will never again have perfect confidence in their betrayers."
"Perhaps so; I daresay you are right. But why borrow trouble that is years and leagues away from us? We are here in old France, and likely to stay here."
"I am not so sure of that."
"I am not so sure of that. I had a long tete-a-tete with Jean Francois de la Roque to-day, and he is wavering. He has much influence in Picardy, and King Francis is greatly indebted to him. He declares that if he wants a ship, or indeed a fleet, he can have it. He professes to be anxious to win souls in the new land of darkness, as he calls it; but do not lay too much stress on the darkness when you meet him. The gold and the diamonds and the furs will touch his heart much quicker than anything else. He is a shrewd fellow, and if you can get him enthusiastic over your New World you will soon be at your beloved Stadacona, and have a chance to stay there too. His idea is to plant a colony there, develop the resources of the country, and, I have no doubt, save the souls of the inhabitants at his leisure. I wish we could get together some of our old friends. A few of the men who pulled safely through the scurvy would be a great help on another such expedition."
"Where is Charles de la Pommeraye?" interrupted Cartier.
"De la Pommeraye! Have you not heard the last news of him?"
"No; what fresh scrape has he been getting into? There is no braver fellow alive; and if he does get into a few more quarrels than the rest of us, it is merely because of his excessive gallantry. A petticoat will always bring him to his knees. Why man, at Hochelaga he doffed his plumed hat to every fair savage who attracted his eye. If I get a chance to go again I will find him, though I have to search every hole and corner in France."
"I am much afraid you will have some trouble in finding him. The last report I had of him was, that he was seen lying in the streets of Paris with several daggers gracing his breast. He was my friend, as you know, and, despite his foolhardiness and follies, the only man in whom I could ever have perfect confidence. I had always expected he would meet just such an end; but I have shed more tears for him than I ever thought to shed for any man."
"Charles de la Pommeraye dead!" exclaimed Cartier. "I cannot believe it!"
"Neither can I!" interrupted a sturdy voice that made both men leap back and lay their hands on their weapons. "Neither can I! And if any one doubts my word, here's my sword to prove it!"
"La Pommeraye!" cried Claude. "Where in Heaven's name did you spring from?" and the two men seized the hands of the young giant who, in the attire of a fashionable gallant of the day, with gay-coloured doublet and hose, richly plumed hat, and surtout trimmed with gold lace, stood laughing before them.
"Paris, where I was seen lying dead in the streets. How long is it, Claude, since you have had such a poor opinion of me? I have been put to strange straits in my day, but I have never yet slept in the streets. Be thankful I did not leave the two of you to be carried out of this square in the morning. I came here spoiling for a fight, and had my sword all ready to begin carving you when Cartier's voice struck me like a whiff of bracing, salt-sea air. But what great enterprise have you on hand? Your serious looks bespeak some weighty scheme. Whatever it is, my sword is at your service."
"I doubt if it would be wise to take such a fire-eating duellist into our confidence," said Claude, regarding his friend with a smile.
"Now, Claude, that is hardly fair. You know I am no duellist. I merely fight when I am compelled to, and never without just provocation. For instance, I had a delightful passage-at-arms last night, but it was no fault of mine. I was coming across the Sillon when a pretty girl came towards me with a leisurely step that seemed to say: "I have just been watching for you." She had a face like a flower, in the moonlight, and I could not resist snatching a kiss. That was all: but it acted like a match in a powder magazine. She started back with a cry. Evidently she had not been waiting for me; and before I could apologise, or take back the kiss, her lover swooped down upon me with drawn sword."
"I trust," exclaimed Claude, "he let a little of the impudence out of your gallant hide."
"Not a drop. I know the danger of kissing pretty girls in the public thoroughfare, and never do it without having my hand on my sword-hilt. He sprang forward, and I sprang back. The girl was between us, and in his haste to spit me, he pushed her roughly aside. The slight pause gave me time to draw my sword. He came at me, blind with fury, but I was on my guard. A pass or two showed me that I could disarm the fellow in five minutes. The fair one stood by, mutely wringing her hands, and as I wished to stand well in her opinion, I resolved to show her what I could do. I have been learning some cuts and thrusts and guards in Paris, and now was my chance to put them in practice. I bewildered the fellow, and when I thought her highness must have seen that I was the better man, and the more worthy, I let out with a rapidity rarely seen in musty old St Malo, and my opponent's sword went clanging against the wall.
"The man was no coward. No sooner was his sword out of his hand than he tore open his shirt, crying: 'Stab, villain, insulter of women!' But if I had attempted to take him at his word, and punch a hole or two in him, I could not have done so, for even while he spoke his beloved sprang between us, and hissing the epithet 'Coward!' in my face, flashed a dagger towards my breast. So quick was the stroke that I am afraid only a miracle could have prevented a woman from at last making a permanent impression on the heart of Charles de la Pommeraye, but I was once more to be saved from the base designs of the sex. My antagonist seized her hand from behind with a vice-like grip; and there we all stood—a most interesting group of enemies. He was the first to speak.
"'Put up your toy,' he said sternly to the girl, who, except for that one word 'Coward!' had never uttered a sound since the beginning of the struggle. 'Put up your toy; my life is in his hand. He has won it with the sword.'
"'Charles de la Pommeraye,' I answered, 'never strikes a weaponless man. Take up your sword, my friend, and let us give this fair Amazon a little more worthy entertainment.'
"But he would not even look at the weapon that had failed him.
"'Here it is,' said I, lifting it from the ground. 'But I am very much afraid we shall both have to sheathe our swords for to-night. Yours has lost a good foot. That wall has excellent granite in it. But meet me here to-morrow with a fresh weapon, and we can finish our little difference by the light of yonder moon.'
"'I am no duellist,' he cried, 'but I accept your offer. Your name is known to me, Charles de la Pommeraye, and I know you as a man of honour, despite your unknightly conduct towards a defenceless woman. See, she has fainted! Help me with her to my house, and to-morrow at this same hour I will meet you at this spot without seconds or witnesses. Lift her gently,' he added, as he raised the girl's shoulders. 'Put your arm about her on the left, and we can carry her between us.'
"But she was perfectly limp. We were really dragging her through the street, when I said: 'This will never do. Lead the way. I will follow you.' As I spoke, I raised her from the ground, and although he resisted my action, he soon saw that there was no help for it, and strode before me in silence. The moon shone full in the girl's face as she lay in my arms, pale and lifeless, and I saw the error I had committed. She was unmistakably of high-born lineage, and I would have given worlds to undo my rash action; though what she was doing at that place and at that hour is beyond me to conjecture. But we were at the door of my antagonist's house in a few moments, and he bade me hand over my burden. As he took her in his arms he exclaimed: 'To-morrow night, remember. The Sillon: and come without witnesses.'"
"Quite a romance," said Cartier; "but you are never long in a place without picking up something of the sort. How long have you been in St Malo?"
"Since yesterday afternoon. I had gone out for a moonlight stroll, and was crossing the Sillon, dreaming of that glorious voyage we had together up the Hochelaga."
"Well, Charles," said Claude, "have a care! If you keep up this sort of thing you are never likely to have another such voyage. But, by the way, did not your adversary act in rather a strange way for a lover? He allowed you to carry the fair one, did you say?"
"Yes, and walked ahead, as if he had been her father."
"I am inclined to think you have been mistaken. No lover would have behaved in that manner. He is probably her father or elder brother."
"Neither, neither, Claude? He was too young to be her father, unless the moonlight greatly deceived me, and he resembled her as much as I do one of the gargoyles on Notre Dame de Paris. But I am glad you have thrown out the hint. I will diligently enquire of him if he is her lover, and if he is not, I will be satisfied with disarming and humiliating him a little for his boldness. If he is, however, I am much afraid I shall have to despatch him to Heaven, as an obstacle in the way of my winning the lady of the dagger. I have felt the charms of many a fair woman before, but none ever had power to move me as did that helpless girl last night as I carried her to her home. She is an angel, Claude, with the face of a Madonna!"
"Well done, Charles!" exclaimed Claude, laughing. "I am glad to hear that you are caught at last. Hear him, Jacques; how delightful it is to hear him confess that he has felt his heart burn before now. But this is the one, only, and lasting affection. Ah! Charles, you are still a sad dog! In this same town six years ago I heard you swear that you would live and die true to the beautiful daughter of the Sieur des Ormeaux; in just one week you were on your knees to Cosette, the daughter of the drunken captain of a fishing smack; and in two months after that I saw you myself, in the shadow of Mont Royal, wildly gesticulating your undying devotion to the daughter of old Adario, that greasy potentate whose warriors were filled with awe at the imposing way in which you bellowed a 'Te Deum.'"
"Silence, Claude, or, by Heaven, I shall forget that we are sworn friends in love, in war, and in peace, and challenge you to fight as soon as I have finished with the fool whom I must now hasten to meet. Do not follow me, I beg of you; I would not have him think I had friends standing by to witness our struggle. Good-bye; and if I am not back in half an hour you will find an account of all my worldly possessions in an iron box, about six inches square, in my room at the old inn."
Without another word he strode away from them, and a few paces brought him to the end of the street, where the buildings ceased at the beginning of the neck of land known as "The Sillon," which connects St Malo with the mainland. At that time this strip of land was not nearly so wide as it has since become, and was merely a narrow causeway, protected from the encroachment of the tides by a stone wall on the side towards the sea. The two men followed him no further than the end of the street, and stood in the shadow of the last house, waiting to learn the result of the encounter.
"There goes the bravest fellow in France," said Claude, as they watched him disappear. "I only wish there were more like him. He was born to fight; and he has done so much of it that he has at last come to look upon a duel as a necessary part of his day's amusement. And the best thing about him is that he has killed fewer men than any other duellist in France. He has the heart of a child, and the arm of a giant. But hark! Stand close. His opponent comes this way. He is past. Listen! By Heaven, but they have lost no time. They are at it already. I only wish he had not insisted on our staying concealed. I would rather see him at sword play than watch an army in action. But what is that? A woman's scream, as I live!"
In order to explain the scream, it will be necessary to go back to the morning of the day on which this conversation took place. St Malo was looking its dingiest. A heavy rain had fallen during the night, and a mist clung to the muddy streets and grey walls till nearly noon. The little town, with its narrow thoroughfares and towering houses, was as gloomy as a city of the dead; foul odours rose on all sides, and would have been unbearable but for the cool breeze which swept in from the Channel, driving the mists and fog before it.
In one of the highest and most substantial houses two young women sat at the casement of an upper window. The house was a gloomy one, without adornment of any kind except an arched porch, over which was chiselled some motto, or emblem, that had become undecipherable from age. The room where the two girls sat was plain in its appointments, and badly lighted, though its sombreness was relieved by numerous feminine trifles scattered about, betraying the character and tastes of its occupants.
The elder of the two was Marguerite de Roberval, niece of the nobleman from Picardy to whom reference has already been made. She was about twenty-four, dark, and very beautiful, with masses of black hair crowning a well-set head, finely-cut features, and a figure which, even as she sat on the low window-seat, showed tall and willowy. Her beauty would have been flawless but for one defect—her chin was a shade too prominent, giving her face an expression of determination, which, while destroying its symmetry, told of a strong will, and a firmness amounting almost to obstinacy. She had the lithe grace of a panther, and though her repose was perfect, a close observer might have noticed a nervous tension in her attitude and bearing that told of a hidden force and energy resolutely controlled.
At her feet, on a wide-spreading rug, sat her friend and companion, Marie de Vignan—in many ways her exact opposite. Not so dark as Marguerite, nor quite so tall, with a face inclined to be more round than oval, bright, well-opened eyes, and a merry, laughing mouth, her plump figure and vivacious expression bespoke a happy, contented nature, on whom the world and life sat lightly. She had come from Picardy with Marguerite, and was, indeed, the ward of De Roberval. Her father had been killed by a bursting petronel a few years before, and had left his only child to the charge of his friend and comrade-in-arms.
"Heigh-ho!" said Marie, with a half-suppressed yawn, "will this fog never lift? Who would have thought, after the glorious moon of last night that we should have such a day as this on the morrow?"
"Patience, cherie," replied her friend, looking up from the embroidery on which she was engaged. "We have had many such mornings since we came here, but they only make the day seem brighter when the sun does shine out. See, there is the blue sky beyond the housetops! The full sun will doubtless be out ere noon. I often think a wise Providence must send all this mist and rain. If some such means were not taken to cleanse these streets, we should soon not be able to breathe the air of St Malo. I cannot understand what has taken possession of my uncle to leave our broad acres in Picardy for these wretched streets and bare, gloomy walls."
"It is delightful, Marguerite, to hear you complaining. I have been wondering how much longer we were to be kept cooped up here like moulting falcons. I am not much given to grumbling, but I do long for a breath of fresh air, and room to stretch my limbs without falling into a mud-hole, or being nearly knocked over by a clumsy sailor or fisher-lad. When we left Picardy I thought we were going to Fontainebleau; I never dreamed we were about to exchange the sunny slopes of the Somme for this!"
"No doubt," said Marguerite, with a little sigh, "my uncle has good reasons for remaining here so long. You know his cherished schemes about the New World."
"Yes, and I shall never forgive M. de Pontbriand for suggesting to him that he should leave France. Now that we at last have peace, I was beginning to hope that my warrior guardian would find time to take us to Court, and let us see a little more of life and the gay world there. I was tired of staying at home, I must confess, but since my experience of these dreary stone walls I ask for nothing better than our fine broad halls in Picardy. However, as you say, there is no use complaining. But have you forgotten—you promised to tell me the whole story of your last night's adventure. I have been patient, and asked no questions; but I am dying of curiosity to hear how it all happened."
"There is very little to tell," answered Marguerite, with some reluctance. "We were coming home in the moonlight, as you know, my uncle and I, and as we crossed the Sillon my uncle stopped to say a word to a sailor who gave him good-night as we passed. I did not notice that he was not at my side, and so was a few paces in front of him, and in full light of the moon, while he was in shadow. Suddenly a swaggering ruffian of a fellow came towards me with an insolent jest, and before I could realise what he was about to do, I felt his lips touch my cheek. I cried out, and my uncle instantly rushed upon him with drawn sword. That is the whole story."
"But what was the result? Your uncle did not kill the villain, did he? And what could have happened to cause you—you, whose courage has never been known to flinch at the sight of blood—to be borne home in a swoon? I assure you, Bastienne and I had trouble enough with you last night. You have not told me everything, Marguerite. I am sure of that."
Mdlle. de Roberval's dark cheek flushed a little.
"It is a painful story," she said, with some hesitation. "I never thought to stand by and see a De Roberval disarmed. Yet, such was this scoundrel's skill, that after a few passes he succeeded in wrenching my uncle's sword from his hand, and we were at his mercy."
"And what then?" cried the younger girl, breathlessly, as Marguerite came to a pause again. "I would I had been in your place to see such sword-play. I thought your uncle was invincible."
"So did I, until last night. I have often seen him in sword contests before, and none were ever able to withstand him; but he was as a child in the hands of this man."
"Why was I not there to behold this prodigy? But for your friend De Pontbriand and that eagle-eyed seaman who comes to visit your uncle, I have not seen a man since I left Picardy."
"I trust you may never chance to see this cowardly scoundrel. But if you compel me to finish my story—when my uncle's sword flew clanging against the parapet, I could stand by in silence no longer. I had looked to see the fellow punished as he deserved, and now a De Roberval stood unarmed before him. Everything swam before my eyes, I thought only of saving my uncle's life, and, drawing the little dagger I always carry, I would have plunged it into the villain's breast, had not my uncle caught my hand. I remember no more till I found myself at home here."
"Bravo, m'amie!" cried the enthusiastic Marie, clapping her hands. "I knew your courage would not fail you. But what a terrible experience for you to have to go through! Thank Heaven it ended no worse. But tell me, what did this gallant, who proved himself so mighty a swordsman, look like? Describe him for me."
"I cannot, you foolish child! Do you suppose I noticed his features? He was tall and powerful; but beyond that I saw nothing, except his laughing eyes as they met mine when my dagger touched his breast."
"It is not every day one meets a man who can laugh with a dagger at his breast," exclaimed Marie, half-jestingly, half-serious. "I must indeed see him. I shall know no peace until I do."
"Then your desire is granted," said Marguerite, "for, if I am not mistaken, there is the man himself across the street at this moment. Yes, I am sure it is he; see, he throws a kiss to that fisher-maiden opposite. That will show you the true character of your hero."
Despite Marguerite's sarcasm, the man whom the two girls now beheld was a noble specimen of humanity. Full six feet four in height, with broad, athletic shoulders, straight, clean limbs, and a face as bright as a schoolboy's, though his age could not have been under thirty, he was a man who could not fail to attract attention wherever he might be seen.
He was clad in the height of the fashion, and his gay apparel, with its lace trimmings and jewelled ornaments, bespoke him no commonplace adventurer. But the most striking feature in his appearance was his hair, which fell in sunny locks upon his shoulders from under his velvet hat with its spreading plume. In truth he looked more like a Norse Viking of old than a cavalier of the sixteenth century.
"What a noble fellow!" was Marie's involuntary exclamation, as she gazed upon him.
"Noble!" said Marguerite, scornfully. "You surely forget what you are saying. Would you call his conduct of last night noble?"
"Oh, as to his conduct and character that is another matter. But what a magnificent carriage he has; and what shoulders! I should like to meet such a man as that. See, he has turned his eyes this way. Whoever he is, I should certainly fall in love with him if I knew him. It seems to me he is like what Charlemagne must have been; or—yes—like Charles de la Pommeraye!"
Marguerite started at the name.
"What do you know of La Pommeraye?" she exclaimed.
"Have you forgotten, or were you not present the other day when M. de Pontbriand was lamenting the death of his friend in Paris? You have surely heard him speak of him. I wept when I heard of his untimely end, for I have ever had fond recollections of Charles de la Pommeraye."
"You, Marie? What can you mean? You never mentioned his name to me. Now that I hear it again, I remember that that was the name my assailant had the audacity to give my uncle last night. It had vanished from my memory when I swooned. But what do you know of De la Pommeraye? Where did you ever meet him?"
"That man's name La Pommeraye?" cried Marie, disregarding these enquiries, and gazing eagerly after the retreating figure of the fair-haired unknown. "Can there be two of the same name? Could it be possible that he was not dead, or that Claude's friend was another! Yes, that is he; I am sure of it now! How was I so stupid as not to recognise him? I remember him," she explained, "some sixteen years ago, when I was a very little girl. He was a great lad, not more than fifteen, who took me in his arms, and tossed me high above his head. He had just come from Pavia, where, in the disastrous battle, he had twice saved my father's life. Since then I have never seen him; but I have heard of him occasionally as flitting about by sea and land, seeking adventure; a restless soul, who never seems happy unless he is in danger of being killed."
"I am sorry to hear that you know him," said Marguerite, a little coldly, "for I fear he is in danger of being killed in earnest this time. As I came to myself in my uncle's arms at the door last night, I heard him say, 'To-morrow night, remember! The Sillon: and come without witnesses.' The words can have only one meaning. They must be about to meet again to-night; and in a calmer mood, and with a better weapon, my uncle cannot fail to administer to him the chastisement his insolence deserves."
"Pray Heaven the Sieur de Roberval may not meet his death instead," exclaimed Marie fervently. "If this man and Claude de Pontbriand's friend be one and the same, there is no more famous duellist in France. He has never been defeated; and he has the advantage of youth and strength on his side. Your uncle will require the aid of an angel from Heaven if he is to avenge himself on La Pommeraye."
Marguerite had risen, and was pacing the room with an agitated air.
"I have been greatly troubled about it," she said. "I did not know what you tell me now, of course; and I hope and pray that you may be wrong. But my uncle is not so young as he once was, and he will be quite alone, and at the mercy of this villain. I have been trying to think out some plan by which it might be prevented, but I do not know what we can do."
"There would be no use speaking to your uncle, of course; anything we could say would only make him the more determined. But I will tell you what we can do; we can go ourselves, and see fair play."
"Go ourselves, you crazy girl! What are you thinking of?"
"I mean that if we were present, in hiding of course, and unknown to any one, we could intervene in time to prevent bloodshed, and if your uncle should chance to be getting the worst of it, we should certainly be able to save his life. La Pommeraye could hardly kill him in our presence. We should, besides, have the rare opportunity of seeing a contest between the two best swordsmen in France," and the impetuous girl's eyes sparkled with some of the warlike fire of her warrior ancestors. "Would it not be a glorious chance, Marguerite? But how we should manage to conceal ourselves in an open space like the Sillon, I do not know."
"Oh, as to that," said Marguerite, "that would be easily managed. Within ten yards of the spot where they fought last night there is a step leading down to the water's edge, and closed on either side. It is called the 'Lovers' Descent'—Claude showed it to me one day—and there we could stand without fear of detection. But I must consider your mad scheme. Could we possibly manage to prevent a catastrophe? And even if we succeeded in doing so, would it not be only a postponement of the issue? They are determined to meet, and we should only make them so much the more determined—to say nothing of my uncle's wrath when he discovers our presence. But then, if what you say of La Pommeraye be true—and my uncle is alone, and no one knows of the meeting—yes, Bastienne, I am here. What is it?"
She interrupted herself at the entrance of a short, thick-set woman, considerably past middle-age—evidently a privileged old servant. There was no mistaking her origin. She was a peasant of Picardy, faithful, honest, good-natured, and strong as an ox. She had been in the service of De Roberval's family all her life; and once, by her courage and devotion, had actually saved his castle when it was besieged by the Spaniards. They had forced their way to the very gates, and had built a huge fire against the door of the tower, whence the defenders had fled in terror, when Bastienne seized a keg of powder, and dropped it fairly into the midst of the fire, round which the soldiers stood waiting till the great oaken doors should be burned away. The castle shook to its foundations, and the courtyard was strewn with the dead and the dying. The advance was checked; De Roberval's men rallied, rushed from the castle, and won a glorious victory against overwhelming numbers. Bastienne herself was badly shaken by the explosion, and terrified half to death at her own daring. To the end of her days she fancied herself haunted by the spirits of the unhappy Spaniards whom she had sent to such a fearful end.
She stood in the doorway, panting from the exertion of coming up the stairs in unusual haste.
"Ma'amselle," she exclaimed, in what she meant to be a muffled tone, as she came towards the girls with a mysterious air of having some thing of importance to communicate, "I fear there is trouble in store. As I passed the Sieur de Roberval's room just now I saw him making fierce passes with the sword that hangs above the boar's head. If he is not possessed of the Devil"—and she crossed herself hurriedly—"he must be getting ready for a duel, and at his age, too! Heaven have mercy on us all if anything should happen to him! What is to be done?"
"If he is practising with that famous blade," said Marguerite, turning to Marie with a confident smile, "your friend will have need of all his skill to disarm him. It is a magnificent Toledo, and has never known defeat. But as you say," and her face clouded again, "we must do what we can to prevent a fatal ending to the duel. Bastienne, be ready to accompany me at nine o'clock to-night. And say nothing to any one of what you have seen. Your master has probably good reasons for whatever he may do, and he would be very indignant if he thought that any one had been observing his actions."
The old woman, rebuked, left the room, murmuring to herself as she went, and the two girls proceeded to lay their plans.
A little before the appointed hour that evening, having taken old Bastienne into their confidence, they secretly left the house, and made their way to the place of rendezvous, which, as has been said, was but a short distance away. All three were soon established in the cramped and narrow little stairway which Marguerite had described, and waited with no small trepidation the arrival of the contestants.
It was difficult to keep Bastienne quiet. A bright moon was shining in a clear sky, and a gentle breeze crept in from the Channel, cold and piercing. The younger women scarcely felt it; but Bastienne's old bones ached, according to her, as they had never ached before. However, by dint of threats and entreaties, they succeeded in silencing her; and none too soon, for a brisk step was heard approaching, and the next moment a gay voice soliloquised close beside them:
"By the light of the moon I should say I had arrived a little early. Time for reflection, however. It is always well to give a thought to one's chances in the next world just before a fight."
As he spoke he took his stand within a few feet of where the girls were concealed, and began his reflections on the world at whose portals he was standing, by trolling a gay drinking song. When it was finished he recklessly dashed into a Spanish ditty, commemorating the defeat of King Francis at Pavia. In this he was interrupted by an angry voice at his elbow:
"A pleasing pastime for a son of France—to sing the glory of her foes!"
"So ho!" replied La Pommeraye cheerfully, "Monsieur's anger has not yet cooled. I had never a thought of the words—it was the air that carried me away, and, perhaps, the fine description the song gives of King Francis' stand on that fatal day. No one joys in and yet regrets that fight more than I do. I won my spurs in it, and I am here to defend them to-night. But how does the fair one on whose account we meet? 'Tis a pity she should not be here to witness her lover's doughty deeds a second time."
"Villain!" came the indignant answer, "before you utter any further insults, know that you speak of Mdlle. de Roberval, my niece, whose name your vile lips are not worthy so much as to pronounce. Draw, and defend your life!"
"I trust the Sieur de Roberval will pardon my error," said La Pommeraye, drawing back with a bow, while his whole air changed to one of respectful deference. "Had I known the circumstances, I should not have been so ready to offer you the second contest. In the light of the moon I mistook your years. Your skill with the sword is, I am aware, justly renowned, but my youth and strength give me the advantage. Accept my humble apologies, Sieur, and let us end this quarrel without blows. I will leave St Malo at once, and you shall not be reminded by my presence of this most unfortunate affair."
The nobleman's voice was fairly choked with rage.
"Draw, coward!" he hissed. "It is not enough that you must insult, in the person of an unprotected girl, the oldest name in France, but you dare to taunt with age and unskilfulness a man whose sword is dishonoured by being crossed with yours. Were my age thrice what it is, my arm would still have strength to defend the honour of my house. Stand on your guard!" As he spoke, he made a fierce and sudden lunge, which would have taken a less wary opponent by surprise, and ended the duel on the spot.
It was met and parried, and a cool, steady counter-thrust severed the cord of the cloak about De Roberval's shoulders.
"You fight at a disadvantage with that cloak about you, Sieur. I have removed it," said La Pommeraye, with no scorn in his voice, but with a calm self-possession which told De Roberval that he was indeed in the hands of an opponent for whom he was no match.
Had the two combatants not been so deeply absorbed in their own affairs at this juncture, they could not have failed to discover the presence of the three women; for at the sight of her master at the mercy of his opponent, as she supposed, Bastienne forgot her caution, and could not suppress a scream. Further demonstrations on her part, however, were instantly nipped in the bud—if one can use the expression with reference to Bastienne's good Picard mouth—by a prompt and determined application of her mistress's hand. Marguerite's quick eye had seen that her uncle was still uninjured; and at all hazards the secret of their hiding-place must not be revealed. She held Bastienne firmly till she felt the old servant's lips tighten under her hand, in sign of submission to the inevitable; and then, with a whispered warning, and without releasing her grip on the woman's arm, she turned her whole attention once more to the scene before them. Marie, in the meantime, had never taken her eyes from La Pommeraye, and was following his every movement with breathless interest.
The two men stood foot to foot, eye to eye, watching each other as only trained swordsmen can watch. Back and forth they swayed in the clear light of the moon, their swords clashing and singing as they parried or thrust. De Roberval's face, wrinkled and hard at any time, had now an expression of diabolical hate. He was as pale as the walls of the houses in the moonlight, and his eyes glowed with a murderous fire. He seemed reckless of his life, and savagely thrust at his opponent every time any part of his body was left unguarded.
It was otherwise with La Pommeraye. Confident of victory, he smiled calmly at the other's rage, occasionally darting in a straight thrust at some part of his antagonist's body, that told Roberval how entirely he was in the good-natured giant's power. The moonlight, that made the old man's face cold and stony, seemed to illuminate with warmth the handsome features of the younger.
Roberval noted the smile as the moonlight shone full upon La Pommeraye, and his fury increased. Fiercely he flew at him, and thrust with the dexterity which had made him the most distinguished swordsman among the nobles of France. La Pommeraye had to move with lightning swiftness to avoid a wound; and once, indeed, he felt a stinging sensation near his heart, and knew by the warmth at his side that blood was flowing.
It would not do to trifle longer. As if a whirlwind had entered his arm, his weapon flashed hither and thither with such rapidity that Roberval forgot his hate, and thought only of keeping off the attack. But it was useless. Once, twice, thrice, he was touched, touched so lightly that no blood was drawn, and just as he was about to lower his sword to his generous opponent, who was evidently playing with him, he caught a look in La Pommeraye's eye that told him he was once more about to attempt disarming him.
Such a disgrace and humiliation must be averted. He braced himself for the struggle. He determined if possible to bind his antagonist's blade. But to no avail. The trick was an old one, and ordinarily an easy one to outwit; but the arm that now practised it was a giant's. De Roberval vainly tried to hold his sword. His wrist seemed suddenly to burn and crack, and a circle of light flashed before his eyes. It was his sword, torn from his grasp, and hurled over the wall into the water. A quivering silver arc marked the spot where it had gone down. La Pommeraye stood with the same imperturbable air as before. He was smiling as only a victor can, but there was neither scorn nor pity in the smile.
"It shall never be told me that I was beaten," said Roberval impetuously, as he snatched a jewel-hilted dagger from his girdle.
"Hold your hand," said La Pommeraye, sternly, as he saw the frenzied man direct the weapon towards his own breast. "Put up that toy, and be a man. You have been fairly beaten, as has every one who has crossed swords with me. It is no disgrace; but no one shall know what has passed here to-night unless from your own lips."
But his words came too late. The dagger, flashing downwards, struck the breast of the infatuated man, who fell apparently lifeless.
A wild scream rang out from behind the wall. It was Bastienne, no longer to be restrained. But neither Marguerite nor Marie heeded her now, for both had rushed to the side of the prostrate swordsman.
He had fallen forward on his face, and Marguerite flung herself upon his body. La Pommeraye had seen men die before; he had killed a few in his day, both on the field of battle and in single combat; but never before had he had the same stirring of conscience that he now experienced at the spectacle of this beautiful girl overcome by the sorrow he had brought upon her. But his weakness was only for a moment.
"Mademoiselle," he said, approaching, "perhaps we may still be able to do something for your uncle. His wound may not be fatal."
He bent over to assist her to rise, but she was on her feet unaided, and drew back from him with the one scornful word she had flung at him the night before, "Coward!"
La Pommeraye stooped over the lifeless figure at his feet. As he turned it reverently over he noticed that there was no mark of a death-struggle on the limbs or face. Death seemed to have taken sudden hold. But no! he felt the heart, it still beat! The dagger had never pierced the breast! His eye suddenly caught the jewel-hilted weapon lying on the ground.
"Mademoiselle," he exclaimed, seizing it joyfully, "your uncle has only fainted. Here is his dagger untarnished with his blood."
He held it out to where she had been standing a moment before, but she had disappeared, and in her place stood De Pontbriand.
"I am glad to hear you say that," remarked the latter. "It would have been a severe blow to his niece had he fallen by your sword."
A groan told that De Roberval was recovering. If La Pommeraye was a good swordsman, he was an equally cheerful liar. He realised fully how deeply Roberval was stung by the disgrace of his defeat.
"There was little danger of his falling before my sword," he said; "his cloak, which had been cast on the ground, became entangled with his feet, and he fell; and rather than give an opponent the satisfaction of saying he had spared his life, he drew his dagger, as I should have done under similar circumstances, and would have ended his own existence, but the hand of Providence has in some strange manner intervened."
He was still kneeling beside the fallen man, and somewhat to his surprise he felt his hand clutched and pressed, showing that his explanation had been understood and accepted.
De Roberval was soon completely restored to consciousness. He attempted to rise, but when he put his right hand on the ground he fell back with a groan. La Pommeraye saw in an instant what was wrong. The strength of his effort to disarm De Roberval had broken one of his wrist bones.
"Sieur," he said, "you must have fallen heavily, your wrist is broken."
Such was the case, and it was a fortunate mishap for the House of Roberval. It was this that saved his life. He had drawn his dagger, raised it for the blow, but in the process of bringing it down he had twisted the broken wrist so severely that the sudden pain had caused him to lose consciousness, and the dagger, barely touching his breast, fell beneath him in the dust.
"Monsieur, let me help you to your feet," said La Pommeraye, and, as he spoke, placed his strong arm under the reclining nobleman, and raised him as if he had been a babe.
De Roberval was as one in a dream. He seemed hardly to realise what had happened until he saw Cartier and Pontbriand standing by.
"What brings you here?" he almost shouted.
"We heard a woman's scream," replied Cartier, "and fearing that some unfortunate fair one had met with a mishap, we rushed to the rescue."
"A woman's scream! What woman?" and De Roberval looked hastily round; but the three women had discreetly disappeared.
Before he could say aught further he was interrupted by La Pommeraye, who gallantly came up, and, holding out an unsheathed sword, said: "Let me, Monsieur, present you with your weapon, which you lost when you so unfortunately slipped on your cloak."
It was a lie, and De Roberval's look showed that he was aware of it. Possibly he was dimly conscious of having already committed himself by his silence to his generous opponent's explanation, or his wounded vanity may have been too strong to allow him to confess his humiliation before the other two men; at all events he replied, with an attempt at dignity: "I thank you, Monsieur, but you must sheathe it for me, as my right hand is helpless."
Without a word La Pommeraye raised the sheath, and drove the blade home.
"You are generous," said De Roberval, "and I hope you may learn to be as honourable as you are generous. I am wounded, and will soon recover; but the kiss that burns on my niece's cheek is a wound from which she will never recover."
At the words a sword flashed from its scabbard, and De Pontbriand stood fierce and defiant before his friend.
"So!" he shouted, "it was Marguerite de Roberval you dared to kiss—you, whose lips are polluted with the kisses of a thousand light-o'-loves! Draw, and defend yourself!"
"Draw, Claude! Never!" and he drew his cloak more closely about him, so as not to let it be seen that he was unarmed. "Never, Claude. Friend in love, friend in war, friend in death, even if that friend give the blow. Strike if you will; I have done dishonourably, and no hand is so worthy to punish dishonour as the hand of Claude de Pontbriand."
"Enough of this," interrupted De Roberval. "Put up your sword, De Pontbriand. He has apologised, and I accept his explanation. The whole affair arose from a mistake. It would be well, however," he added, turning to Charles, "if this would teach you a lesson on the unmanliness of assaulting every unprotected woman you may happen to meet. But where," and he checked himself suddenly, and threw a piercing glance round him, "is the woman whose scream you heard? Has there been any one else here?"
"We were some little distance away, Sieur," said De Pontbriand, "when we heard the scream, and when we came out into the open there certainly seemed to be a number of figures here, three of whom disappeared on our approach into the shadow of yonder wall; and when I turned to look for them, there was no one to be seen."
The fact was that Marie's quick eye had caught sight of the two men as they emerged into the moonlight and came towards them, and, like a flash, she had drawn the other two women into the shadow of the wall. The instant they recognised the voices, knowing that all was safe, and in terror of being discovered, the two girls seized each an arm of old Bastienne, and taking advantage of the momentary surprise caused by Claude's discovery of the identity of Charles' opponent, had made their way back to the nearest street, with a speed to which the old serving-woman's legs were totally unaccustomed, and never rested till they had landed her, breathless and panting, at the door of their own house.
Charles, in the meantime, discreetly held his peace. He might have imagined that he had dreamt the whole scene had not De Pontbriand been able to vouch for the scream. At all events there was now no trace of the three women to be seen, and after a thorough examination of every possible spot where so much as a mouse might have been concealed, they gave up the search. De Roberval looked a little perturbed.
"You must have been mistaken," he said to Claude. "There certainly cannot have been anyone here. At all events," he went on, "the affair must now be considered at an end. De Pontbriand, you must get into no quarrels. We shall have need of all our good men if we embark upon this Canadian expedition, which I have now in mind."
"Good, good!" cried Cartier, tossing his cap in the air like a schoolboy. "Up with your sword, Claude, and let us get our old friend to join us; we shall have need of him. And, La Pommeraye, beware of bringing down on you the wrath of your friends. It is easy to fight enemies, but he who makes an enemy of his friend loses something he can never regain. To-morrow, then, let us meet and talk over our plans."
In a few minutes the group had separated. Cartier and De Pontbriand escorted Roberval to his home, while La Pommeraye turned his footsteps away from the city, and towards the broad, moonlit fields. He was restless and disturbed. The image of Marguerite de Roberval haunted his brain, and he could not get rid of an uneasy impression that Claude's eagerness to defend her honour had something more behind it than mere chivalrous gallantry. Then, too, how came she so suddenly upon the scene of the conflict? and whither had she disappeared? He walked all night, not caring whither, absorbed in pondering over the mysterious circumstances which surrounded the beautiful girl who had made so strong an impression on his imagination; and the first faint streak of dawn found him back at the spot where the fight had taken place. Looking idly over the wall his eye caught the gleam of De Roberval's sword full fifteen feet below the surface of the clear water. No one was about. In a moment he was stripped. He took one quick plunge, and the next instant the sword was in his hand. When he returned to the city, he waited till it was full day, and then with eager steps proceeded to the house whither he had borne the unconscious form of Marguerite two nights before. Hammering on the door, he waited, uncertain what to say or do, and timid as a schoolboy for the first time in his life. The old, crusty servant who opened the door, curtly informed him that his master was still in bed.
"Tell him," he said, "that Charles de la Pommeraye wishes to see him in his own room if possible."
In a moment the servant returned, and, guiding him through a long and dark hall, brought him to a chamber hung with trophies of the fight. On a couch in the centre, overhung with heavy curtains, lay De Roberval, haggard and worn, having evidently passed a sleepless night.
"Go, Jean," he said, waving his hand to his servant.
When the door was closed La Pommeraye advanced, and bowing, said: "Monsieur must pardon my visit, but I have fished up his sword, and thought it best to bring it to him at once. Ah, I see mine on the floor! It has not often had such treatment; but it was used in a dishonourable quarrel and deserves dishonour."
As he spoke he took it up lovingly and placed it in its sheath.
The tears were in the eyes of De Roberval as he took his loved blade in his left hand, but his voice was hard and cold.
"I thank you, Monsieur," he frigidly replied. "You add one more to the obligations under which you have already placed me."
La Pommeraye saw what an effort it had cost the nobleman to make even this slight admission. It was like swallowing the bitterest hemlock to acknowledge his debt to the man who had vanquished him, and whose generosity had shielded him from disgrace. The young adventurer was shrewd enough to see that if he would win favour with the uncle of Marguerite he must wound his vanity and pride no further. He felt that it would be wise to withdraw, and, after expressing in a few words his regret for the thoughtlessness which had been the cause of the unfortunate affair, he was about to leave the room, when De Roberval called him back.
"Stay," he said, "I have fought many battles, but last night I fought with the most honourable, if the most thoughtless, man in France. This afternoon at four o'clock Cartier and De Pontbriand meet with me to consider the expedition to Canada. Join us in our councils; we cannot but be benefited by the experience and courage of so distinguished a soldier, and one so well acquainted with the New World."
La Pommeraye bowed his acknowledgment, and found himself once more in the streets where life was just beginning to stir. He was soon at the inn to which for years he had resorted when in St Malo, and after a breakfast that would have satisfied Goliath himself, he went to his room to snatch forty winks to brace and refresh him for further adventures.
A few minutes before the hour designated by Roberval, La Pommeraye appeared in front of the house, which had now become a kind of magnet for his feet. As a general thing his careless nature made him unpunctual, and he had not infrequently kept opponents waiting for him when he had a duel on hand. To-night, however, he hoped for a glimpse of Marguerite, and this made him prompt to keep his appointment. He scanned the windows as he passed along the opposite side of the street, but no one appeared to meet his eager gaze. With a heart palpitating like a schoolboy's, on whom some fair girl has smiled or frowned, he slowly retraced his steps to the heavy oaken door. His knock was answered by the same old servant who had admitted him in the morning, and he was shown into a large but very plainly furnished room, where De Roberval sat before a table covered with papers and charts. The walls of the room were hung with pictures of the hunt, of the battle-field, and of religious subjects—the brutality of war strangely ranged side by side with the gentle Madonna and the gentler Christ. In one corner stood a statue of Bacchus, in another was a skull and cross-bones. Trophies of the hunt were scattered here and there; and a pair of crossed swords surmounted an ivory crucifix which hung above a well-worn prie-dieu.
"Vanity and ambition," said La Pommeraye to himself as he glanced round the room.
The words well summed up De Roberval's character. He would have no man in the nation greater than himself. When the famous meeting took place at "The Field of the Cloth of Gold," between Ardres and Guines in Picardy, all the nobles made an effort to rival the splendour of their kings, Henry VIII. and Francis I., and they came to the meeting, as Martin du Bellay has said, "bearing thither their mills, their forests, and their meadows on their backs." Among them all Jean Francois de la Roque, Sieur de Roberval, was the most resplendent. Small in stature, he was handicapped in the use of the sword; but by patient practice he had made up for this deficiency, and had won for himself the name of the most skilled swordsman in France. This reputation he had maintained against all comers till he met the man now closeted with him. He envied the King his poetic talent, and would fain have outdone him in the art of poesy. But even with Clement Marot's help he had been utterly unable to woo the fickle muse. He had so stored his mind, however, that his sovereign, the brilliant Marguerite de Nevarre, and the master intellect of that age, Rabelais, all delighted in his society; and on account of his ability in so many directions, and his evident ambition, Francis had humorously christened him "The Little King of Vimeu." One thing rankled in his ambitious heart: king he could not be. Let him be as strong, as intellectual, as popular as he might, Francis could always look down on him from the throne.
Cartier, although a blunt seaman, had read the man's nature truly, and in endeavouring to win him to his cause, had pointed out the opportunity the New World would give him of reigning an absolute monarch over not a province, but a continent of unlimited extent and wealth. Roberval, like a fool gudgeon, caught at the bait, and had in his own mind fully decided to try the venture. But to impress them with his importance he had called De Pontbriand and La Pommeraye to this meeting to argue the matter with them, and to convince them of the sacrifice he was about to make for his country, and of his reluctance to leave old France.
Despite the vanity and ambition of the man, the enthusiasm, courage, and will that De Roberval put into anything that he undertook were admirable qualities, and as La Pommeraye stood looking into his steel-grey eyes, and admiring his smooth high forehead and finely-chiselled mouth, he felt that he was in the presence of a born leader of men.
Roberval acknowledged his greeting with a sternness of manner for which Charles was hardly prepared.
"Monsieur is welcome to my house," he said frigidly. "But why need he have taken so long to decide upon entering? I saw you," he added, fixing his keen glance on the young man, "pass twice on the other side of the street."
The words were simple enough, but the tone told La Pommeraye that there was a world of meaning in them. If he could be ready with the sword he could be equally ready with the tongue.
"Sieur de Roberval," he said, meeting the nobleman's eyes with a frank, straightforward gaze, "I am not dull-witted. I see that you have read the meaning of my action, and even though it call down your anger on my head, I will confess myself to you. Your niece was the cause of my walking past and rudely staring at your windows. I love her, and unless some more favoured suitor has already won her heart, I have vowed to prove myself worthy of her hand, if God wills it."
"Silence!" almost shouted De Roberval. "If God wills it a thousand times, it shall never be. I will oppose it. But why waste words?" he added in a quieter tone. "My niece would spurn you as she would one of Cartier's savages."
"At first, I have no doubt," returned Charles with great suavity. "But, as you say, we waste words. We are met to consult on a great undertaking, and I have told you my intentions that there may be no double-dealing between us. You know me, and you know what I have resolved to do, and if you should not wish to have me join you in this enterprise you can exclude me now. There is plenty of work, or will be soon, for my sword in France, without my taking it to a land where it will only rust in the scabbard."
Before De Roberval could make any reply, a heavy knock resounded through the house, and Cartier's voice was heard enquiring of Jean: "Is your master within?"
"Ay, that he is, Monsieur, but I doubt if he will receive you. Either the Emperor or our beloved King Francis is with him."
"What makes you think that, honest Jean?" said De Pontbriand's voice.
"Why," replied the old servant, "he spoke back to my master! I heard him with my own ears, and I thought that even the King himself would not do that."
"Well, Jean, he has promised to meet with us to-night; so, King or no King, show us to his room."
Not waiting for an answer they pushed towards the door of Roberval's room, which stood slightly ajar. Before they could knock De Roberval threw it open, exclaiming as he did so: "Welcome to our conference."
"Behold the King!" he continued, laughingly pointing to La Pommeraye. "Jean is a strange fellow. I am afraid I should have left him in Picardy; his tongue wags too much. But he is not far wrong this time. The man who could defeat De Roberval is indeed a monarch among men."
There was a steel-like ring in his voice as he spoke; Cartier and De Pontbriand looked at each other, and both wondered what fate he had in store for La Pommeraye.
"But," he continued, "we have much work before us to-night, let us settle down to it at once. I hope, Cartier, you have brought your charts with you, and you, De Pontbriand, your notes."
"We have," said the two men in chorus; "and," added Cartier, "what we have omitted La Pommeraye, who, in search of adventures, wandered about for several months in the primeval forests, will be able to supply."
The four heads were soon assiduously studying a rude map which Cartier had spread on the table. Intently they scanned it: Charles and Claude with the fond remembrance of men who had visited those distant, almost unknown, lands; Cartier with the delight of a man who had before him the continent he had claimed for his King; and Roberval with the eagerness of one who is about to venture on a mighty undertaking that may ruin his fortunes, or make him the most renowned man in his country.
The nobleman's sharp eyes noted the mighty rivers and broad gulfs, feeling that already they were his own. The vastness of the great unknown world took hold on him. The forests of Picardy were like stubble beside these unbroken stretches of wooded country; and the mightiest river of France was but as a purling brook when compared with the gigantic sweep of the river of Hochelaga, which stretched inland for unknown leagues.
Cartier had been watching his countenance, and saw that he was completely won to the enterprise; but Roberval feigned a lack of enthusiasm. He turned from the map, and with assumed indifference said: "I like not the look of the country. Woods and water, water and woods, are all you have marked on it. I prefer a land of fertile fields and civilised society."
"But, noble Sieur, you mistake. It is not all woods and water. This mighty Baie des Chaleurs teems with fish. We filled our boats as we passed along; and did all Europe take to a fish diet that one bay could supply them. And the woods, Sieur! They swarm with animals. Mink, otter, beaver, fox, are as plentiful there as sheep and goats are with us, and as easily captured. There would be no trouble to get their skins, or time lost in hunting them either. The Indians would bring in pelts by hundreds, and all we should need to give them in return would be a few glass beads, metal rings, leaden images, or some gaudy apparel."
"Enough, enough!" said De Roberval impatiently. "You talk as if you were in the establishment of a St Malo merchant instead of in the house of a nobleman of Picardy."
Claude saw that Cartier had over-shot the mark, and so came to the rescue.
"The Sieur de Roberval," he said, "must pardon good Master Cartier. He has so long been bringing home the wealth of other lands that he is inclined to think of the value of a country by the amount of wealth it can put into the treasury of France."
"A very laudable way of thinking, and one of which good King Francis would be the first to approve," replied the nobleman in a gentler tone.
"Yes," said Claude, "but not the only thing to consider. This commerce gives us the greatest opportunity any people has ever had. The whole New World is steeped in the most degrading paganism. The Indians have no notion of God, or the Blessed Virgin, or of Christ. And, Sieur, while the treasure from the streams and the forest may bring us reward on earth, the countless souls we may lead to heaven will win us crowns in eternity."
Claude was not a hypocrite. He had begun to speak of the spiritual side of the enterprise with the special purpose of buttressing Cartier's argument; but he was a devout Catholic, and his lips only echoed what was in his heart.
"Pontbriand," replied Roberval, "you plead like a holy father. We shall have to shave your head and give you a black robe. But there is something in what you say; though to propagate Christianity effectively in such a land would require enormous wealth."
"True, most noble Sieur," said Cartier hastily, "and if the forest and the stream do not yield sufficient we must dig it out of the earth."
"What mean you? Have you further information about the mineral wealth of the New World? The last you gave me was of little value. Your precious metal has proved to be less valuable than lead, and your diamonds but quartz. See," he said, rising, "how this acid affects your gold."
He took from a shelf a piece of metal which Cartier had sent to him.
"La Pommeraye," he said, "you will have to be a right hand for me, and uncork this vial."
A drop of the liquid was allowed to fall upon the metal, which at once became discoloured.
"No, no!" exclaimed Roberval. "You will have to try some other bait. I will not go to Canada hoping for gold."
"I do not wish to contradict you, Sieur, but test this lump;" and Cartier, as he spoke, handed him a nugget the size of an egg.
Nervously Roberval seized it. It stood the test.
"Where!" he exclaimed in an excited voice, "did you get this?"
"From Donnacona, of whom you have heard, and whom indeed you have seen for yourself."
"And where did Donnacona get it?"
"Far west of his home at Stadacona, and of Hochelaga, too."
"I must see him at once," said Roberval.
"That will be difficult, Sieur," replied Cartier. "He is in Heaven."
"Dead, is he? Well, what good will that nugget do us?" said Roberval, in disgust and disappointment. "We might search for centuries before we could find its mate."
"True, Sieur, but where one was found there are likely to be others. Besides, I have here something that may help us in our search."
As he spoke he unrolled a precious chart, scratched on birch bark with some rude weapon, such as a flint arrow-head.
"I got this from Donnacona five years ago, and I have kept it from the world till this moment, fearing that calamity might befall it."
He spread it on the table, and on one corner rested the tempting nugget.
It was a marvellous map; the map of an unknown world of wonders.
"I can swear to the truth of this part at least," said Cartier. "This is Hochelaga, and here are marked the difficult rapids above it. These five inland seas are without doubt in existence. Many Indians have told me of them; and see, Sieur, this one is incomplete. Donnacona told me that no Indian had ever reached its end; and yet there are tales among the Indians of richly-robed men of another race and colour who live beyond these vast western waters. I do not like to conjecture in so great an undertaking, but does it not seem probable that we have at last before us the road to the East, and to the Kingdom of the Grand Khan?"
"Enough, enough, Cartier!" said Roberval, laughing. "You are too enthusiastic. What next will you have to offer? Already we have had furs, fish, timber, gold, silver, precious stones, and Indian souls. You must think I need great temptation to be lured into this enterprise. But what have we here, to the north of this ocean?"
"I am glad you have noticed that," replied Cartier. "Those rude marks are the mines. They are of great antiquity; and Donnacona, who had no idea of the value of the precious metals, spoke of the men of old who dug for metal such as we wore on our fingers, and about our necks. He had a fine scorn for such baubles; and, as if to impress us with their worthlessness, stood on the heights of Stadacona, and pointed with pride to the wigwams of his tribe clustering at the foot of the cliff: 'But,' he said, 'the men who wrought the metal are no more. Mighty oaks grow from the earth in which they toiled.'"
Roberval seemed scarcely to heed this long harangue. He gazed intently at the map, and did not raise his eyes till the voice of La Pommeraye, who had hitherto been silent, broke upon his ear.
"What Cartier has told you, Sieur, is true. I too have heard the same tales from very different sources. But, to my mind, Cartier and De Pontbriand, in advocating their expedition, have left out the most important consideration. Spain is already in the New World. Cortez has brought shiploads of gold from Mexico; Ponce de Leon, Garay, Vasquez de Ayllon, and Hernando de Soto have all brought home tales of treasure and wonder; and if France does not make haste she will find herself one of the least among European Powers. Besides, let us build up a nation in the New World, and we may have some more fighting. The rumours of war that flit up and down in France are mere woman's talk. My blade is rusting in the scabbard, and now that the Emperor and King Francis are complimenting each other like two schoolgirls, it is long likely to remain so. But in the New World there will be a glorious opportunity for a struggle with Spain. The Spaniard already claims the whole of America, and will fight for every inch of it. A strong man could found a mighty empire on the banks of the Hochelaga, and have all the fighting his heart could desire. I should like to be lieutenant to such a man."
"And you shall be," said De Roberval, firmly. "Gentlemen, I have decided. To-morrow I depart to hold an interview with King Francis. Meet me here in three weeks, and I will report my success. He owes me a heavy debt, and will, I have no doubt, fit out and man a fleet for us, and give me full power over Canada."
The three men rose. Cartier and De Pontbriand made their adieus and left the room; but before La Pommeraye could follow them, the touch of Roberval's hand on his shoulder arrested him. The door closed on the other two, and Roberval, without resuming his seat, remarked, in a not unkindly tone:
"You are a brave youth! I admire your courage, and shall be glad to have you join me in this expedition. But one thing I must have distinctly understood: This romantic attachment you fancy you have conceived for my niece—I must hear no more of it. You have seen her but once, and under circumstances which make it unlikely that you will ever meet her again. Your time will be fully occupied in preparations for our departure; as for her, I shall see that she leaves St Malo at once. Go, now, and prove yourself indeed a man of honour by attempting to see no more of her. I warn you, you will rue the day you cross my will."
The young soldier merely bowed in silence and left the room. As he stepped into the long hall he noticed two figures standing close to each other in the dim light at the farther end. They seemed to be engaged in close conversation. He recognised Claude, and his heart sank within him, for he thought the second figure was Marguerite. De Roberval was following close behind him, and, with a generous impulse to shield his friend, Charles placed his giant proportions immediately in front of the little nobleman. But when they reached the street door he was rejoiced to find Marie standing there, apparently bidding good-bye to Claude.
"Where is Marguerite?" said De Roberval sternly.
"In her room, Sieur."
"I thought I saw her here a moment ago."
"You must have mistaken me for her, Sieur," replied Marie, unhesitatingly, "as I but this moment left her."
"Strange," thought La Pommeraye, as the two young men left the house together, "that we should both have made the same mistake; but doubtless we were both thinking of her. But that fair damsel in the hall is not the style of beauty by which I should have thought Claude would be attracted. However, so much the better for me. The coast is now clear, I hope."
"Claude," he said, after they had walked a little distance in silence, "I saw you as I came out into the hall. You seemed to be holding a very absorbing conversation with that fair lady—a friend of Mdlle de Roberval's, I conclude. May I be permitted to ask her name?"
Claude did not answer for a few moments, and La Pommeraye noticed that his face wore an expression of anxiety and doubt. At length he said:
"That is Mdlle de Vignan—the Sieur de Roberval's ward. She lives with him, and is the constant companion of his niece."
"Marie de Vignan?" exclaimed Charles. "The daughter of Aubrey de Vignan who was killed in action five years ago?"
"I would I had known it was she! Yet how could I recognise her?—I have not seen her since I held her in my arms, a mischievous little elf of five years old, when I used to be a constant visitor at her father's house. It was a second home to me—indeed, more of a home than I have ever known elsewhere, before or since. And that is my little friend and playmate! I congratulate you, Claude. If she has inherited anything of her father's nature and her mother's sweetness she will be indeed a jewel."
To his surprise Claude made no reply; and the two friends walked on in silence. La Pommeraye asked no more questions, and his friend was evidently not desirous of volunteering any further information. They shortly overtook Cartier, who was waiting for them, and the incident was forgotten for the present in the discussion of their plans for the proposed voyage.
Three weary weeks dragged themselves along. Cartier was all impatience for definite information about the King's attitude towards the Canadian expedition, while Charles and Claude were both eager, for reasons of their own, for the return of De Roberval's niece and his ward, whom he had taken to Fontainebleau with him. The three weeks lengthened into a fourth, the fourth into a fifth, and the adventurers were beginning to despair, when the faithful Jean appeared at the inn where Charles and his friend were lodged, bearing a note from his master.
De Roberval had returned, and success had crowned his efforts. The King had given him full power to make preparations—but they must come to him at once to receive instructions, and hear from his own lips the generosity of their noble monarch.
Eagerly the two young men hurried to tell Cartier the good news; and the three proceeded to Roberval's house, where they found him in high spirits. He had received more than he had asked. Anne de Montmorency had been with the King, and a friendship which had been begun at "The Field of the Cloth of Gold" had made him an ardent supporter of the little nobleman from Picardy.
The King was won to the glorious cause of extending French territory, and of winning souls. He bade Roberval return to St Malo, hurry on his preparations, collect his crews, and await his official commission, which would follow him as soon as the necessary legal proceedings could be gone through. In the meantime a letter signed by the King's own hand gave him all the power he needed.
"You are about to settle a new world for France," he had said to Roberval; "our right of colonisation is firmly established there, and the sword and the cross will make us strong. To keep you bold in arms, and firm in the faith, I present you with this sword which the saintly Bayard laid upon my shoulders with the words: 'He who has been crowned, consecrated, and anointed with oil sent down from Heaven, he who is the eldest son of the Church, is knight over all other knights'—and with this golden cross, which encases a fragment of the true cross—these dints on it are from Spanish blows; thrice did it save my life on the field of Pavia of unhappy memories—with this talisman you may hope to succeed in the great land of Norembega."
The three enthusiastic listeners congratulated him on his success, but without heeding them he went on: "That is not all. Hear the substance of this letter, signed with his royal hand. A fleet is to be fitted out at once; the governors of all the provinces are to aid in securing arms; and I"—the little nobleman seemed to grow several inches as he uttered the words—"I am created Lord of Norembega, Viceroy and Lieutenant-General in Canada, Hochelaga, Saguenay, Newfoundland, Belle Isle, Carpunt, Labrador, the Great Bay, and Baccalaos."
As he rolled off this imposing list of titles La Pommeraye's sense of humour got the better of him. The rugged, uninviting land which he knew so well rose vividly before him; and the high-sounding terms which were heaped upon it in no way lessened its ruggedness. He turned to Roberval, and with a merry twinkle in his blue eye exclaimed: "King Francis is truly generous, most noble Sieur de Nor—you must pardon a soldier's tongue and memory; I shall have to shorten your titles—Sieur of the Universe; but there are difficulties in the way. I have sounded the fishermen and sailors of St Malo, and none seem willing to cross the stormy Atlantic as settlers. If we could lure them across for fish, or furs, or gold, it would be well; but all dread the fierce cold and the scurvy to which so many of their companions have already succumbed."
"It matters not," said Roberval; "I have full power to raise men, and the sturdy beggars—and, if all other resources fail, the denizens of our prisons—shall be forced on board my vessels."
"Sieur, that will be a dangerous experiment," interrupted Cartier. "I had three criminals with me on my last voyage, and they poisoned the minds of nearly every other man on the ship."
"You forget," said Roberval, "that I am commander in this expedition. An iron hand falls upon the man who disobeys my slightest wish. Criminals are but men; and they will find that no ordinary turnkey watches over them. But why borrow troubles? Let us to work and build our ships, get the stores on board, and man them, and the other difficulties can then be faced. We have three ships now, Master Cartier. Set your carpenters to work on two others at once, and build them with particular reference to the Atlantic passage and the dangers from the ice. You had better consult with Jehan Alfonse. You are both skilled seamen, and what one overlooks the other will be sure to provide for."
He then proceeded to intrust to Claude the task of superintending the purchase of supplies. Enough provision would be needed for three hundred men for a year at least; and it would be necessary to see that everything could be hurried into St Malo at a moment's notice.
"And you, M. de la Pommeraye," he added, turning to Charles, "as you seem to have already taken it upon yourself to seek men for this expedition, have my authority to go into every vessel in the harbour, or in any harbour in France, and offer the men double their present wage; and if that will not induce them, go to the prisons and select such men as you think fit. You know a man when you see him; and this letter with the King's seal will open the prison gates before you. For myself, I must away to Picardy to set my estate in order. I shall return with all possible speed; meantime spare no efforts to hasten our preparations."
So the three men were dismissed, and as Claude and Charles were about to leave the house they looked stealthily round the hall. But no flutter of skirts nor any trace of woman's occupation rewarded them. Roberval noticed their glances, and as he bade them farewell he said, somewhat roughly: "St Malo is a dangerous place for women. I have left my niece at Court. If our great undertaking is to succeed, nothing must be allowed to distract our attention from our plans. No other cares must be allowed to interfere with our sole object in view—to increase the glory and renown of our beloved country."
The three men passed into the narrow streets, each absorbed in his own reflections. Cartier saw in imagination his name on the pages of history, next to that of Columbus. Claude had but one immediate end in view—to plan how he might extend his expeditions for supplies as far as Fontainebleau, while as for Charles, since the only way to reach Marguerite appeared to be by winning the good opinion of her uncle, he resolved, as a first step in that direction, to devote his whole energies to the task he had in hand.
Winter swiftly passed, spring lengthened to summer; summer was on the wane, and still the New World seemed no nearer. The ships were completed, and the empty hulls rode in the harbour of St Malo awaiting supplies and arms. But the money promised by the King was not forthcoming; and Cartier reluctantly prepared to spend another winter in old France. The prisons of St Malo were crowded to overflowing with criminals for the voyage; for only a few hardy adventurers had been secured by La Pommeraye. In August Roberval paid a flying visit to his fleet, inspected the vessels and men, and expressed himself strongly on the slowness of the King in keeping his promise. It would be useless to start for America during the autumn months; so he made up his mind to pay a second visit to Fontainebleau, see what could be done in view of the following spring, and take his niece and ward back to Picardy with him for the winter.
While he was in St Malo his steps were dogged, unknown to him, by a swarthy young mariner who had been engaged for the voyage. He had a French name, but a Spanish face; and Cartier, meeting him one day in the street, exclaimed: "Pamphilo de Narvaez, or his ghost!"
"I have been twice mistaken for that Spaniard, whose name I never heard till I came to this place," said the young man. "My name is Narcisse Belleau. Narvaez' bones lie at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico—at least so M. de la Pommeraye told me when he engaged me for this voyage."
"A most remarkable resemblance!" returned Cartier. "I would as soon have the Devil on board La Grande Hermine as De Narvaez. Be sure, young man, you join one of the other vessels. Belleau is your name, you say? A good name, but a Narvaez face!"
As he turned away the young Spaniard, for such he was, chuckled to himself: "A good name, indeed! And you and your fellows will rue the day you ever looked upon this face."
He was in very truth Pamphilo de Narvaez, a son of the famous sailor of that name, and had been sent as a spy from the Spanish Court to discover if the rumours of a mighty expedition being fitted out to occupy the New World—Spain's peculiar property—were true. Seeing that Roberval was the soul of the undertaking, he determined to bide his time, strike him down, and save Spain a bloody war in America. He learned that Roberval meant to visit Fontainebleau, and from there to set out with his niece for Picardy. A meeting on the road, with a few dare-devils to aid him, would end the expedition and win him honours and prosperity on his return to Spain.
So he planned; and when he had succeeded he would go to America and finish the work of exploration begun by his illustrious father.
In the meantime Claude and Charles, committing their stores and prisoners to the charge of Cartier, left St Malo, neither telling the other whither he was bound. By different roads, and almost simultaneously, they turned their horses' heads towards Paris; both hoping to meet Roberval and his party as they passed through that city on their way to their northern home. They reached their destination without encountering each other, took lodgings in adjoining streets, and, each unconscious of the other's presence, set out to make enquiries as to when the nobleman might be expected. Had they had long to wait they must have met; but one November day, very shortly after their arrival, a gay crowd of riders came galloping through the streets of the city. Their fluttering pennants, their nodding plumes, their gorgeous doublets and richly-ornamented cloaks, their finely damascened arms, studded with jewels, and their horses, as richly caparisoned as themselves, all told that they had come from the fashionable world of the Court at Fontainebleau.
Such was indeed the case; they had come to escort De Roberval and his household thus far on their northward way. The two young men learned where Roberval was to pass the night, and also that he intended to depart early the following morning, and each returned to his rooms, determined to be up with the lark in order to obtain at least a glimpse of the fair lady who had drawn him to Paris.
But Roberval was up before them; and armed from head to heel, and with a bodyguard of a few sturdy Picards, had already left the city. Claude was the first to reach the nobleman's headquarters, and, on learning of Roberval's departure only a few moments before, set spurs to his horse, hoping to overtake him before he could get clear of the walls. On arriving at the gate, however, he learned that the party had already passed through. There were three roads which would lead them to the ancient and renowned castle which frowned down upon the fruitful plains between the Bresle and the Somme. The nobleman had selected the longest route, but the safest in those troublous times. Claude paused for a few moments to consider this information. He, too, was fully armed, and wore a breastplate of steel beneath his riding cloak. His splendid figure, and the magnificent manner in which he sat his horse, caused some remark among the guards at the gate, of whom he made his enquiries. His resolution was soon taken. He decided to follow by the western and rougher road, which merged into the other at a distance of some miles. He would thus gain a point in advance of Roberval, after a few hours' hard riding, then he would at least have the satisfaction of forming one of the escort as far as the castle.
He set out accordingly; and scarcely was he out of sight when a second rider came up to the gates. When he found that he was too late even for a sight of his goddess, Charles had impulsively started in pursuit, though what he hoped to gain even if he did succeed in overtaking her, guarded as she was, he had no definite idea. The sentinel whom he questioned told him the direction Roberval had taken, and added the further information that a single horseman had but just ridden in hot haste after him, by a different route. A suspicion instantly flashed through Charles' mind, and the description of Claude furnished by the man left no doubt as to the rider's identity. Without stopping to consider the wisdom of his course—thinking only of Marguerite, whom he could not hope to see once she was behind those battlemented walls—Charles turned his horse, and galloped off by the third of the three roads mentioned. It was a shorter cut than either of the other two, but one which few travellers ever took, as every mile had witnessed some deed of violence from the bands of robbers who haunted it.
Roberval and his party made their way leisurely along the dusty road they had chosen, while the two young men rode with fevered haste along their less frequented paths. Towards noon the three were rapidly converging towards the same point, at which they would arrive almost simultaneously.
Claude, who was mounted on a swift charger, which had more than once carried him to victory in a tournament, was the first to reach this point. Scanning the ground he noted that no cavalcade had as yet passed that way. As he sat his horse and waited, the measured galloping of hoofs coming towards Paris fell upon his ears. He did not wish to meet strangers, so withdrew into a thick grove at one side of the road. Scarcely was he concealed when half a dozen hard riders, well horsed and armed at every point, drew rein at the very spot where he had first checked his steed. They surveyed the road hurriedly, and at a word from their leader plunged into a thicket at the opposite side.
"There is trouble in store for some one," said Claude to himself. "If I am not much mistaken, the leader of that gang of cut-throats is none other than Narcisse Belleau, whom, despite his good French and vehement protestations, I believe to be a Spanish spy. And now to my dagger and sword; I may need them. I would La Pommeraye were only here to lend his eye and arm to the coming struggle."
Scarcely had he finished examining his weapons when a cloud of dust slowly advancing in the distance told him that a party of considerable size was on its way towards the ambuscade. He anxiously awaited their approach, and soon recognised Roberval's Picard escort, and the fluttering skirts of the women. If the men in ambush were waiting for them they were doomed, unless he could warn them. To pass from his hiding meant almost instant death, but it must be risked; so he began slowly to make his way towards the road, and was soon at the very edge of the grove. When De Roberval was within a hundred yards he put spurs to his horse, which, seeming to scent danger, made a dash forward past the lurking-place of the assassins. The Spaniard and his comrades were so taken by surprise that for a moment they did not realise his intentions; but De Narvaez, with an oath, exclaimed: "It is De Pontbriand; shoot the dog down!" Their petronels rang out, but the clumsy weapons shot wide of the mark, and in a trice Claude was with his friends, who, alarmed by the firing, and the wild rush of the approaching rider, had come to a sudden standstill. Before they had time to question De Pontbriand the Spaniards were upon them, and with fierce shouts and drawn swords dashed into the group which now formed a protecting body about Marguerite, Marie, and Bastienne. There was a sudden checking of careering steeds, a clashing of weapons, a heavy falling of wounded men, and three of De Roberval's party and one of the foe lay in the dust. As De Narvaez shot past he placed his petronel against his breast and fired point blank at De Roberval, but quick-witted Bastienne, who saw his intention, struck her master's horse on the nose, and the animal, careering wildly, received the contents of the charge in the heart. The Spaniards rapidly returned to the attack. There were now but five of them opposed to the three Picards who remained with Claude and Roberval, and they expected an easy victory. Two of the Picards fell before their attack, and De Roberval himself was struck down by a fierce sabre blow which dinted his helmet. Claude found himself hard pressed by two of the ruffians at once. It must end in a moment.